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The Yankees need to re-think their defensive strategy

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It’s clear that the Yankees do not play good team defense, and the data backs it up. What causes these issues, and what will the organization do to address it?

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The defensive woes of Gleyber Torres and Gary Sánchez have already been narrativized to death. Perhaps because of their lack of consistent production at the plate — which makes defensive issues all the more glaring — these two players have become the poster boys for bad defense across the league. The issue with scapegoating Torres and Sánchez, however, is that it distracts us from the larger picture — notably, that the Yankees defensive strategy simply isn’t working, regardless of the metrics you use.

In terms of Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), the Yankees ranked 27th in the league with a -43 overall ranking according to FanGraphs. Of players who played more than 100 innings for the Yankees this season, only Aaron Judge, Kyle Higashioka, and Joey Gallo had positive DRS ratings. Even DJ LeMahieu, heralded for his glove, posted ratings of zero at first base, -2 at second base, and -1 at third base.

FanGraphs’ DEF metric — which combines positioning with Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) — is a little more kind to the Yankees, as it gives their team defense a -3 rating, good for 19th in the league. Even when the metrics are being perhaps a little generous, the Yankees are still a bottom half of the league team.

Finally, my preferred metric for determining defensive success is Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA). For the uninitiated, here’s the Statcast definition of the metric:

Outs Above Average (OAA) is the cumulative effect of all individual plays a fielder has been credited or debited with, making it a range-based metric of fielding skill that accounts for the number of plays made and the difficulty of them. For example, a fielder who catches a 25% Out Probability play gets +.75; one who fails to make the play gets -.25.

If we look at the OAA leaderboard, the Yankees rank 25th in the league with a brutal -17 rating. Only the Angels, Nationals, Orioles, Reds, and Red Sox played worse defense this season. As a complimentary piece to the OAA puzzle, Runs Prevented “is the position-adjusted translation from outs saved to runs saved.” In this category, the Yankees posted a -13.

I’m not typically one to harp on fundamentals as I believe they’re too often associated with an outdated mode of thinking about baseball, but being able to field your position to at the very least league-average capabilities is a must for any team who seriously wants to contend, and the Yankees clearly failed to do that. What are the root causes of the Yankees’ defensive struggles? I think there are two key ingredients that have led to their team-wide issues: playing too many players out of their traditional positions and defensive positioning.

Let’s start with what I’m tentatively calling position-less baseball, for lack of a better term. This season, it was abundantly clear from the get-go that Gleyber Torres is not a shortstop. Torres’ DRS as a shortstop and a second baseman were -10 and -2, respectively. In terms of OAA, he posted a -9 as a shortstop and a -1 as a second baseman. Overall, his -10 OAA puts him in the worst percentile of fielders in the league. While his metrics at second base still aren’t great, it’s a lot easier to hide a below average second baseman than it is to hide a truly poor shortstop.

So the question that begs to be answered is: why did it take the organization so long to move him away from shortstop? As a result of his adventures in the infield, Gio Urshela, DJ LeMahieu, and, to an extent, Rougned Odor had to routinely play out of position more often than they ever should have had to. If you want to run position-less baseball where everyone is a utility player, you need a team of fielders who are at least above average. The Yankees simply don’t have that, and the results were ugly.

The second, and perhaps more confounding piece of the puzzle is their defensive positioning — also known as the dreaded shift. In terms of overall percentages, the Yankees shifted just 27.3 percent of the time, down almost nine percentage points from 2019. This percentage ranks them 18th in the league. Versus lefties, the Yankees shift rate jumps to 56.4 percent, and their wOBA is a stellar .282. Against righties, though, the Yankees shift just 11.4 percent of the time, and the wOBA is .379, eighth-highest in the league.

The easiest way to mask bad fielding is to look at the data and shift accordingly to give your weaker defenders a better opportunity to make a play on the ball. The Yankees simply aren’t doing that enough, especially against righties. For the sake of comparison, the only remaining playoff teams that utilize the shift less than the Yankees are the San Francisco Giants, whose elite defense ranks fifth in OAA (meaning they don’t need to shift as much because they’re already very good), and the White Sox, who rank 15th in OAA.

As Joshua pointed out last week, there is a time and place to trade defense for offense. In fact, I mostly agree with that philosophy. Unfortunately, this is neither the time nor the place for this team to do that. Unless the Yankees suddenly start hitting like it’s 2018 or 2019 again, they really need to re-think their approach on the defensive side of the ball. Whether that means leaning into the shift more or focusing more on bringing in better defenders is up for debate, but they can’t afford another defensive year like this.